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Born on a Blue Day

Born on a Blue Day

Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet

The title of this entry is the title of a book I read recently. The book was interesting and informative. It had many of the qualities I think make for a great book. It is an autobiographical work that tells about the early years, formative experiences, and major accomplishments of its author. It is also very rich in information related to his condition. I’ve been interested in memory feats and systems, synesthesia, aspergers syndromeand what is known about the phenomenon for some time. So I’ve been keeping a kind of file on news items, and related things. I was able to see early in the book that Daniel Tammet is at least as aware of the case studies and research as I am, and is able to mention everything relevant succinctly and in a logical place in his book.

The book also has the virtue of broadening our horizons. It helps us to understand something of what it is like to be very different. When you watch a movie like “Rainman,” based on another person, who is also a high-functioning autistic savant, you get a sense of how different someone like that is. You see that they can be loved by their close family members, that their unusual outbursts of emotion sometimes make a kind of sense, but what you don’t see is how they see themselves, how they experience the world around them, or what is going on in their heads when they perform their amazing feats of calculation or memory. In “Born on a Blue Day,” Daniel Tammet lets you do that.

If you’ve seen the “Brainman” documentary about him, as I have, there are going to be several things that you already know when you open the book. You’ll know something about how intimidating he finds the disorder of the outside world to be. You’ll know something about his epileptic fit as a child, and will probably have some idea that this led to his current abilities, you’ll know that he has amazed brain researchers in the U.S. by passing their tests, and proving that his synesthetic experiences of numbers are consistent. And that he did indeed learn to speak Icelandic in a week.

What this book will tell you that you may not know, is that his father and grandfather have some mild afflictions, and in his grandfather’s case it was exacerbated by experiences at war. You’ll learn that he credits the experiences of closeness to many siblings in a large family for a large part of his ability to bridge the gap between his condition and relating to people in a more normal way. You’ll learn how he challenged himself by choosing to volunteer to teach English abroad in Lithuania. And you’ll learn a few surprising things about mathematical puzzles, and Pi.

The book does leave me with several questions though. Particularly about the nature of memory and the confidence that Tammet expresses in his own, and in the late Kim Peek’s retention.
Specifically, Piotr Wozniak, a polish psychologist and sort of expert in the field of memory has built a system around one of the most useful facts about memory to come out of laboratory experiments; that memories fade at an exponential rate unless they are reinforced by rehearsal at certain spaced intervals. Using this information, the statistical law of memory defined as a forgetting curve, he has created a computer program to optimize studying so that a fact may only have to be reviewed ten times in order for a person to remember it throughout their lifetime. The more facts you want to force yourself to remember permanently the more time you need to spend making repetitions of those facts. Wozniak has written a computer program, called SuperMemo to turn this method into a product, which is relevant because it is widely used by people who are attempting to learn foreign languages, and from the book, one of Daniel Tammet’s sources of income is an online language-learning website.

By applying his understanding of the rate of forgetting through statistics gathered from the use of his program, Piotr Wozniak has arrived at some upper limits to what a person can expect to learn in a lifetime, and he finds that it would be impossible for a person to learn, say, the entire contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica. His reasoning is that the number of questions one would have to answer to retain above 85 percent of that knowledge would take more hours than anyone could devote to learning in a day. He also says that even people who use memory systems, or have extremely good natural memories are in the same boat as everyone else when it comes to retention. According to Wozniak, memory can be improved, by learning new ways of encoding or organizing information, but the idea that memories of any kind are permanent is a myth.

Against this, we have Daniel Tammet reporting of Kim Peek, that, “He can read two pages of a book simultaneously, one with each eye, with near perfect retention. Kim has read more than 9,000 books altogether and can recall all their content.”

If we take the experimental results and Wozniak seriously, it seems we have to be doubtful about the retention claimed for the late Kim Peek. And if it were true, how would we possibly explain it? Is every phone number, birthday or baseball statistic as significant an experience as putting your hand on a hot stove, or a life threatening fall? (Since those are some of the few things that ordinary people are likely to never forget, but wish they could.) Surely there must be at least some category of fact, even for him, that memories fade at the same rate as the rest of us. Or are we just overly willing to praise the outstanding abilities of a person who seems so terribly impaired in other areas of life? And is Tammet a little credulous in passing this praise on to us as fact?

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